Six months ago, Masai Ujiri celebrated Toronto’s first NBA championship.
Is it possible—possible—that six months from now Ujiri and the Raptors could be celebrating another one?
Crazy, right? Toronto is 22-11, a top five team in the conference. The Raps have lost three out of four, which would be cause for concern if the lone win didn’t come on Saturday, in Boston, when where the Raptors clubbed the Celtics by double digits, and if Toronto had not been without Pascal Siakam, an early season MVP candidate, who has been sidelined since mid-December.
That the Raptors are even in this position is nothing short of remarkable. History has not been kind to teams that have lost players the caliber of Kawhi Leonard. The Cavaliers collapsed after losing LeBron James—twice. The Spurs dynasty effectively ended when they moved Leonard. Russell Westbrook was able to keep the Thunder in the playoff mix after Kevin Durant defected but that team had a low ceiling.
Do we know what Toronto’s is?
This is a quirky season. There is no superteam. The Lakers have James and Anthony Davis but a once sturdy defense has been gashed the last few weeks. The Bucks are steamrolling through the Eastern Conference but until Eric Bledsoe shows up in the postseason, they aren’t invulnerable. The Clippers have perhaps the highest upside but can Leonard really win a championship in his first season with another team?
There is an opening, even if it is ever so small, for the Raptors to make a run. Toronto has one of the best player development programs in the league. It produced Siakam and Fred VanVleet, unheralded players who have developed into stars. It is producing OG Anunoby, Chris Boucher and Oshae Brissett. Brissett, a rookie, stepped into the Raptors injury ravaged lineup in Boston and chipped in four points and six rebounds.
Believing in the Raptors means believing Siakam, at 25, is ready to carry a playoff team. It means buying that Lowry, who will be 34 in March, is able to handle a bigger role in the playoffs. It means that veterans Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka will be healthy and performing while the collection of young players Nick Nurse and his staff are developing can give good minutes in pressure situations.
This is where Ujiri comes in. For months, it has been assumed that the Raptors at some point would hold a fire sale. They have big, fat expiring contracts in Gasol ($25.6 million) and Ibaka ($23.3). Ujiri handed Lowry another year (and $30 million) to his deal, in part to make Lowry more tradeable. Across the league Lowry and Jrue Holiday’s names make any list of impact players who could be available before the deadline.
But what if he’s not? What if instead of being sellers at the deadline, Toronto emerges as buyers?
The Raptors could be active everywhere. They have the expiring contracts. They have the intriguing young players. They have the future draft picks. They could probably pluck Toronto native Tristan Thompson out of Cleveland anytime they wanted. If they got aggressive, they might be able to quickly cut a deal for Kevin Love, too. Versatile wings like Holiday and Robert Covington could be in play.
The question is—how aggressive do the Raptors want to get? How strongly does Ujiri believe an upgrade would catapult this team past Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Boston in the East? How realistic is it that the Raptors can knock off either LA team in the West?
Some 18 months ago, Ujiri made a bold move in acquiring Leonard. The situation was different—that Raptors team had a ceiling and cap problems. This version may have a ceiling, but Ujiri can look ahead at the next two years and envision the Raptors as players in free agency. They will have to pay VanVleet next summer, but in 2021—the Summer of Giannis—Toronto projects to have as much flexibility as anyone. They will have two young stars in Siakam and VanVleet. They will have a championship coach and a top executive players can connect with. They will have a winning culture.
That can’t be discounted. The safest play would be to stand pat, to play with the house money a championship season affords and see if a healthy Raptors team can find lightning in a bottle. But Ujiri has never been about the safe play. Toronto is past the point of selling off its veterans. But as the deadline approaches, one of the NBA’s biggest questions will be if the NBA champions are motivated to add one.